In the early hours of July 22, 2020, photojournalist Rian Dundon was covering a protest outside of the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Oregon. As police officers rushed the scene, Dundon was knocked to the ground by marshals as the police dropped tear gas canisters and smoke bombs as they went. One of the marshals ripped off Dundon’s press badge as another pinned him down in the smoke and tear gas. The incident was caught on video as well as in photographs that ended up in newspapers and magazines all around the world.
“I walked home with third-degree burns that night, bedraggled but buzzing on residual adrenaline … This was one of the many times—the worst time—that the protests felt like a medieval siege” writes about the incident in his new book Protest City.
The protests that Dundon was covering had begun over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the hands of police officers. Dundon was no stranger to protests, having been photographing the rise of extreme politics on the West Coast since 2016, and that year’s Presidential Election. But Portland was different.
“I began with the 2016 Presidential Election. The rallies started to get more confrontational after that. I was living in Oakland at the time, then moved to Portland in 2019 where the dynamic was even more aggressively partisan. I was drawn to the emotions on display as well as the political spectacle, which was always attended by a gaggle of Youtubers and livestreamers,” he told Blind via email.
In Portland, Dundon lived just a short walk from where they were centered, and for 100 days would head in their direction with a small point and shoot camera to document what went on. “For this project a pocket camera made sense because I needed to be agile but also because I wanted to slow things down. It seems paradoxical, but with this type of camera you have to refocus for every frame, so you’re really only taking one picture at a time: snap, focus, snap, focus. For the most part these are all one-off frames—I’m not bracketing. There’s no burst mode. To be so constrained in a fast-moving situation forced me to attempt different types of pictures.”
Dundon’s work follows the progress of Portland’s conflicts, draws connections to Oregon’s legacy as a stronghold of white supremacist extremism, and investigates the role of whiteness in racial justice movements.
But he also explores how political movements become politicized, the spectacle inherit in protests, and the blurring lines between performance, ritual, and surveillance.
“Protests should be understood as the performances they are. Social movements have become fodder for social media content and citizen surveillance, which as a photographer I’m clearly implicated in. I’m not an activist photographer. My project is to bring a critical eye to the role of photography and image production at the center of these events.”